Halfway through Tallulah, an unwieldy but affecting showcase for Ellen Page and Allison Janney, Lu (Page), a drifter suddenly confronted by an enormous responsibility stares up at blue sky above Washington Square Park and muses about gravity. What if it just stopped? What if we left these earthly bounds and floated off into the ether? It's not a suicidal fantasy on Lu's part, though circumstances have landed her in a terrible spot. She just wants to be free.
Written and directed by Sian Heder, an Orange is the New Black staff writer making her feature debut, Tallulah is a movie about the burdens of motherhood, of young adulthood, and of being a woman period. Heder and her cast work hard to make those themes land through the drama, which insistently finds connections between strangers of different generations who are thrown into the same crisis. Yet it's also the type of movie that turns Lu's dream of weightlessness into a clunky visual motif, not trusting us to understand characters that it imagines so thoroughly.
The too-muchness signaled by that metaphor carries over into the plotting, which survives a few hiccups and major contrivances to find its emotional center. First seen dashing away from a roadside bar with stolen liquor, the free-spirited Lu lives in a van with her boyfriend Nico (Evan Jonigkeit) and dreams idly of climbing the Himalayas, which she's pretty sure are in India. The couple has spent two years eating out of dumpsters and begging truckers for shower tickets; Nico wants to settle down and Lu wants to continue down the open road.
Cue the cosmic record-scratch.
After Nico splits in the middle of the night, Lu drives to New York City in search of his mother, Margo (Janney), whom he intended to visit. Still penniless, Lu scavenges the halls of a fancy hotel for room service scraps, but winds up getting pulled into a situation that changes the course of her life. Mistaking her for housekeeping, Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), a drunk, hapless trophy wife, ropes her into looking after her one-year-old daughter while she goes out on a date. Lu takes the assignment out of pity — as well as the piles of loose cash and jewelry in the room — but winds up taking the baby, too, when Carolyn comes back wasted and in no condition to care for her kid.
Little about Lu's kidnapping makes sense — even if you accept her as a poor decision-maker, you have to get past her allergy to commitment — but she persuades Margo that the baby is her granddaughter, which is enough to get her through the door. The two have trouble getting along at first, given that Margo, set to sign divorce papers for a husband who left her for another man, doesn't exactly want the company. While they tentatively bond around this beautiful, apple-cheeked lie, a frantic Carolyn summons the police and Child Protective Services, who vow to track her baby down, but have some questions about her fitness for motherhood.
Tallulah cracks open several more cans of worms, too, expanding to include Margo's flirtations with her apartment doorman, an awkward dinner with Margo's soon-to-be ex-husband and live-in boyfriend, and a surprising chunk of time devoted to Carolyn and the investigation. The absence of strong narrative through-line makes the film feel diffuse and overstuffed, like a television season crammed into a two-hour window. But a word like "overstuffed" throws a darker shade on the generosity that's the film's greatest strength, owed to Heder's commitment to writing three fully realized women and the troubles they have in liberating themselves — if, indeed, they want to be liberated at all.
Page and Janney, in particular, have terrific chemistry together, because both actresses are exceptionally good at leavening dramatic crises without undercutting their seriousness. There's a humor and deftness to Tallulah that the story wouldn't seem to accommodate easily, given the desperation that unifies these characters around a kidnapped toddler. That Heder's warts-and-all vision of maternal ambivalence lacks focus and concision seems partly by design, a refusal to oversimplify these women for the sake of narrative expedience. They're screwed up. They're good-hearted. They're human.